Julian Baggini: Monarchists are from Mars, republicans are from Venus

 

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If you want proof that there is not one universe but a multitude of parallel worlds, you don't need any quantum physics: just read the Letters pages of our national newspapers.

What passes for intelligent life in this country perceives the world so diversely that communication within it can be as difficult as sending intelligible messages to extraterrestrials. And, as the debate over the proposed royal yacht has shown this week, nowhere is this chasm more evident than in the difference between Homo regius and Homo republicus.

On Planet Telegraph, a new boat for Her Majesty is obviously a splendid idea. "There are millions of people in Britain and the Commonwealth who would like to support such a project as a thank-you gift to the Queen," gushed Rev Ackerman from Gloucestershire. If there is a complaint, it is that she should never have been robbed of her old one. "Does one take away a favourite doll from a child and offer a shiny new one?" asked Patricia Howard from Devon. "No, the harm and hurt have been done."

Here in the Indyverse, in contrast, the whole idea is equally obviously ridiculous. "What planet does this man live on?" asked Bristol's Richard Channelle of Michael Gove, a question I think I've already answered. "Old people languish on trolleys in corridors of hospitals and dehydrate in dark, neglected corners of care homes," wrote Jeremy Braund from Lancaster, trying to give the Education Secretary a reality check. "They do not sail around on luxury yachts." These subjects were, one assumes, even more outraged after hearing yesterday that the Tory donor Lord Ashcroft wants to bankroll the yacht with £5m of his money.

Whenever the monarchy becomes the subject of debate, we get this sense of a polarised, mutually incompressible nation. But, in fact, most people belong to neither of the species Homo regius nor Homo republicus but to Homo indifferens. They regard the monarchy much as they do religion, with benevolent neglect. They don't think much about God or Queen, would probably agree that both entail more than their fair share of absurdity, but they're quite pleased they are there and don't want to abolish either. Even the campaigning group Republic acknowledges that support for abolition is consistently around just 20 per cent, and although a fair number of Britons are non-religious, few surveys show that more than 10 per cent identify as atheists. Too much patriotic flag-waving or evangelical happy-clapping makes the majority queasy, but so too does too firm a rejection of our secular and celestial sovereigns. Given that the head of state is also head of the Church of England, this parallel is particularly congruent.

Paradoxically, the dominance of Homo indifferens ensures that in public debates about the monarchy, we hear more from the staunch defenders and detractors. Alas, they are so far apart that their debates are dialogues of the deaf, each talking past the other, with no hope of finding common ground. Meanwhile, the silent majority doesn't get heard.

Compounding the problem is that both extremes need each other more than they do the moderate majority, which in its mildness actually poses an existential threat to both. For Republicans, diehard royalists are too thin on the ground to be the real enemy. Rather it is benign indifference to the monarchy that is the biggest obstacle to its abolition. There will never be a republic while the majority sees the succession of kings and queens as a quaint tradition, culturally significant but politically irrelevant. So republicans have to counter the safe and harmless image of the monarchy and present it as too rich, too powerful, too medieval.

The republican cause isn't helped by the fact that there are hardly any true monarchists around anyway. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believed in the divine right of kings or who thought monarchy was the best form of government. Supporters of the British monarchy are conservatives, not true monarchists. If the Royal Family didn't exist, they wouldn't want to invent it, because the whole point is that it is not something we have invented, but inherited. For them it lies at the core of Britain's unique, rich traditions. Britain without its monarchy would be like Dover without the white cliffs, English literature without Shakespeare, scones without clotted cream and jam.

Because the monarchy is about politics, fairness and justice for republicans and tradition, continuity and culture for monarchists, debates between the two have hardly any points of contact. It's also why the moderate middle is as threatening to monarchists as it is to republicans. Sensible, incremental reform of the Royal Family threatens its pomp and glory as much as abolition, if not more so, because it has more chance of success. The danger is that the non-republican majority would be quite happy with something like a northern European bicycle monarchy. But the House of Windsor is British (or at least Anglo-Teutonic), not Dutch or Danish. "Modernisation" would take the regal out of the regina.

As we approach the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, however, perhaps the moderate middle will at last get its due. General reaction to the proposed yacht suggests that in the decade of austerity, even those sympathetic to the Queen are in no mood to indulge the Royal Family with any financial favours. At the same time, when even the Conservative Party is having to rethink openly what capitalism means, even those sympathetic to a republic must surely see that it is hardly top of our political priorities right now. (That's why, although I am listed as one of Republic's supporters, I'm not a very energetic one.)

The voice we really want to hear right now is not one of patriotic defence or reforming attack, but the kindly word of a sensible person in the street, someone who might invite the Queen in for tea and explain: "Listen, love. We like you. But, to be honest, it's a bit embarrassing to see you being so pampered and indulged while our heating bills go through our roof and our public services go down the toilet. So can we do a deal? You can keep your changing of the guard, trooping the colour and all that. No one wants to see you on a bike. But can you cut back your budget a bit, stop calling it 'my government' and demote yourself to an honorary role at the C of E?"

If the monarchy did that, then we'd have a royal family not worth making a fuss about, and Homo regius and Homo republicus would soon find themselves going the way of Homo neanderthalensis.

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